In an early stop on his first tour since 2011, veteran folk crooner Bill Callahan brought his baritone to the Dionysus Disco on Saturday, May 4. After an opening performance by tap dancer Flat Foot, Callahan rambled through 11 songs with a mastery that could have only been honed over his two decades of work.
Opener Flat Foot’s act took place on a wooden platform on the floor in front of the ’Sco stage. The dancer, a small, scantily clad woman, performed with accompanying playback of four songs and an original track composed of tap and vocal loops.
Beginning with Judy Garland’s “I’m Nobody’s Baby,” Flat Foot indulged an old-fashioned aesthetic that continued with Consuelo Velázquez’s “Bésame Mucho” and Hank Williams’s “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.” The dancer’s vivacious demeanor partly made up for her occasionally sloppy rhythm, and the performance drew a generally amused enthusiasm from the growing crowd.
The ’Sco hosted a solid turnout for the group, as students took the chance to distract themselves from the approaching final academic push. Callahan sympathized, after thanking his audience near the end of the night: “It’s been our pleasure… beautiful campus. I’m not sure what it means. A place where you have to go to class is not beautiful to me.” Whatever it may usually be, the center of Oberlin’s campus felt beautiful in the course of Callahan’s set.
Despite the lack of any new material, an expectation some fans had begun to harbor in the interim since 2011’s full-length Apocalypse, Callahan delivered a mesmerizing and soothing performance of stripped-down electric folk music. Joined by Apocalypse contributor and 2011 tourmate Matt Kinsey on electric guitar and Austin musician Brian Beattie on electric bass, Callahan presented restrained arrangements of songs largely taken from his three most recent albums. Opening with “Sycamore” from 2007’s Woke on a Whaleheart, Callahan set the tone of his own simple, repetitive strumming accompanied by atmospheric moans from Kinsey’s guitar.
This basic orchestration gave songs from 2009’s lush Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle a less ornate quality. Without Beattie’s elaborate string and horn arrangements that characterize their studio manifestations, “The Wind and the Dove” and “Too Many Birds” settled down and stretched out into the band’s minimal sound.
Callahan and Kinsey occasionally accompanied themselves with taps affixed to their shoes, adding an understated percussive force to Apocalypse’s “Universal Applicant” and “Drover.” Through the harmonica hooked around his neck, Callahan punctuated the band’s lilting instrumentation with intermittent hums. Over this soothing accumulation, Callahan’s resonant voice meandered through his characteristically spacious phrasing. With a wry smile and the occasional minimal hip-shake, Callahan delivered his naturalistic lyrics, verging on the psychedelic in “Universal Applicant” and on the romantic in “Our Anniversary,” originally released on 2003’s Supper.
The trio also performed two covers: “Please Send Me Somebody to Love,” written and originally recorded by Percy Mayfield in 1950, and “Old Blue,” a 19th-century traditional song about a hunting dog. On the latter, Callahan took a rare guitar solo, fulfilling the promise of his guitar’s whammy bar that one excited fan noticed when the band first took the stage.
Bringing the performance to a close, Callahan announced, “I guess this is our last song,” and began “Too Many Birds” as the audience voiced its reluctance to depart. The band’s farewell was met with boisterous applause and rhythmic clapping from a crowd eagerly expecting an encore. The trio returned to perform recent fan favorite “Riding for the Feeling,” the fifth song of the evening drawn from Callahan’s latest album.
As the band left the stage for good, a few fans desperately chanted for more, but to no avail. Ninety minutes of simple repetition and minimal instrumentation had coalesced under Callahan’s direction into an enthralling show.